Thursday, March 5, 2015

Building The 53 - How to Handle 2015 Unrestricted Free Agents

There are 11 players currently on the roster for the Green Bay Packers that are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents very soon, five on offense and six on defense.  The five offensive players are: Bryan Bulaga (T), Randall Cobb (WR), Matt Flynn (QB), John Kuhn (FB), and Scott Tolzien (QB).  The six defensive players are: Jarrett Bush (CB), Letroy Guion (DT), Davon House (CB), Jamari Lattimore (LB), B.J. Raji (DT), and Tramon Williams (CB).  After reading all the names on the list, you can see that there are a number of very difficult decisions for Packers general manager Ted Thompson.

As a general matter there are four ways to deal with the aforementioned free agents: let them become free agents, sign them to one-year veteran minimum deals, sign them to reasonable long-term deals, or sign them to expensive long-term deals.  The Packers have ~$33 million in salary cap space so they could theoretically sign almost all 11 guys but I am more interested in making sure that the Packers keep a balanced roster in terms of how much money is allocated to each position instead of just bringing everyone back because they have the salary cap space. The thought is that the Packers need to make sure any extension they offer makes just as much sense in 2018 as it does right now.

The no-brainers is letting Lattimore leave via free agency.  Oh man have things changed for Lattimore.  Early in the 2014 season when I was in full hate Brad Jones mode I thought Lattimore might actually be a long-term answer at middle linebacker.  Based on how Lattimore played in 2014 before he suffered a season ending injury shows that is clearly NOT the case.  This may be too much of a blast from the past for people but a couple season ago Lattimore and Terrell Manning battled for a roster spot.  I favored Manning over Lattimore but Lattimore beat out Manning.  While Manning has NOT been a great NFL player, I now feel vindicated that the call between Lattimore and Manning was closer than it appeared at the time.

I would tell Bush, Flynn, Guion, Kuhn, Raji, and Tolzien that they have a one-year, veteran minimum offers ready for them to sign.  Originally I would have thrown some decent money over a couple years at Guion (say two years, $5 million with $1.75 million guaranteed) but Guion was recently pulled over and arrested after police found an unloaded gun, a ton of weed, and almost $200,000 in cash in his car.  I am going to go out on a limb and say that arrest is going to hurt Guion's free agent value.

2015 Off-Season Advice for TT
Projections for Practice Squad
How to Handle 2015 ERFA's
How to Handle 2015 RFA's
How to Handle 2015 UFA's
Free Agent Shopping Guide
Potential Salary Cap Casualties
Locks for The 53 in 2015
Besides Guinon, I honestly think Raji is the next most attractive name on the list despite the fact that puts him ahead of a 2014 All Pro (Kuhn), a special teams standout (Bush), and two serviceable backup NFL quarterbacks (Flynn and Tolzien) even though Raji missed all of 2014 with a torn bicep.  Raji signed a one-year, $4 million "prove it" contract after he turned down a big money extension in the middle of the 2013 season that reportedly was worth upwards of $8 million a year because he wanted to test the free agent market.  Although interest in Raji was tepid last off-season, I could see him garnering at least a little interest on the free agent market this off-season if he is willing to take just the league minimum.  Take that with a grain of salt though because I thought Thompson should offer Raji a four-year, $20 million deal with $5 million guaranteed last off-season when Thompson ultimately signed Raji to a one-year, $4 million deal.  Sure Raji might be able to sign for a million more elsewhere in 2015 but I think that would be a mistake because if Raji stays healthy and productive in 2015 for the Packers, I could see Thompson signing him to a lucrative extension next off-season to keep Raji in Green Bay for his entire NFL career.

Clearly I see the market being soft for Bush, Flynn, Guion, Kuhn, Raji, and Tolzien so I would let them all make some free agent visits to gauge their market value because I guarantee that their actual free agent value is much less than their agents are currently telling them it is.  If any of those guys can actually sign for more than the veteran minimum, I would not getting in a bidding war if I was Thompson.  Instead I would wish them good luck and replenish via the draft or free agency.

That leaves Bulaga, Cobb, House, and Williams.  I am going to take a somewhat controversial view at the outset and say that the Packers should NOT break the bank for Cobb.  If I were Thompson, I would have put the franchise tag on Cobb, which would have secured his services for $12.823 million for 2015 in Green Bay or elsewhere if Thompson traded Cobb.  The floor of what I would take for Cobb in a trade would be a second round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft given that the Packers would most likely get a 3rd round compensatory pick in the 2016 NFL Draft for Cobb if he signs elsewhere this off-season.  There are rumblings that Cobb wants upwards of $9 or even $10 million a year.  If that is the case that would put Cobb and wide receiver Jordy Nelson in essentially the same position financially depending on how much guaranteed money that Cobb gets.  That would also mean that the Packers would be committing roughly $20 million a year to their top two wide receivers, which seems a little rich, especially since they have a ton of young wide receivers on the roster in Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Janis, and Myles White.  Collectively all four might not be as good as Cobb yet but the Packers have NOT missed a beat when they lost Greg Jennings and James Jones so it almost seems like addition by subtraction when young wide outs are given a chance, which Thompson clearly has to factor into his decision making process for how to handle the Cobb negotiations.

The only NFL teams with a ton of cap space to make a $9 or $10 million a year deal work are the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders.  I know Cobb is only 24 years old and is coming off one of his most productive season in the NFL but let's not forget that his diminutive frame makes him injury prone.  In fact with the proliferation of slot guys that can also line-up in the backfield or even occasionally out wide, I see there being more and more players like Cobb available in the NFL Draft given that demand is increasing for these types of players.  It might get to the point in five or ten years that slot guys are like running backs now where you need a couple but you never want to invest too much in any one guy.  For that reason, I honestly think Bulaga is the most important free agent for the Packers.

I know Bulaga missed 28 games over his five seasons in Green Bay but let's not forget that he was the heir apparent at left tackle just a few years ago.  I hope that David Bakhtiari turns out to be the left tackle of the future but let's not forget that is only entering his third NFL season so there is chance that he could regress.  Left tackle Jermon Bushrod's five-year, $35.9 million contract with $22.5 million guaranteed that he signed with the Chicago Bears before last season is a good comp.  The guaranteed money that Bushrod got will probably out pace what Bulaga gets but five-years for $35 million seems very fair for Bulaga.  I know that might feel rich but the Packers have two cheap pieces at left tackle in Bakhtiari and center in Corey Linsely so they can afford to pay Bulaga.  Plus with Barclay most likely coming back on a one-year, $1.5 million contract and J.C. Tretter still on his rookie contract, the Packers are in a good position to fill their backup spots along the offensive line without having to overpay in the free agent market.

That leaves House and Williams.  Even if the Packers let Bush, House, and Williams leave via free agency they would still have Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde (if they shift him back to cornerback), and Demetri Goodson as their top four cornerbacks.  Surely that would mean the Packers would need to draft a cornerback in the 2015 NFL Draft.  Inevitably positions go through a churn so this off-season might be the cornerback churn.  There are reports that the Packers are offering Williams two-year deal worth $8 million but he wants a three or four year deal that averages $5 million a year.  There are also reports that House wants to be paid like a starter, which I presume means upwards of $6 or $7 million a year, which is way too much for an injury prone cornerback.  You could argue that Williams's on-field performance has declined slightly but there is no questioning his durability given that he only missed one game so far in his career in Green Bay.  The same cannot be said for House given all of his injury issues but House's three-year ceiling is much higher than Williams but those some injury issues means House's potential floor is much lower too.  Much like Nelson getting paid hurting Cobb because there is only so much money that teams can commit to each non-quarterback position, Shields getting paid hurts House and Williams given that Shields signed a four-year, $39 million contract before last season.

For what it is worth, I would be willing to hand out the following deals to keep Cobb, House, and Williams.  For Cobb, I would actually sign a back-end loaded deal because of how young he is and how much the salary cap will go up in a few years that averages $7 million a year so that would make it a six-year, $42 million deal with $20 million guaranteed.  For House, I don't think I would go much higher than $4 million a year so my ceiling would be a five-year, $20 million deal with $7.5 million guaranteed.  Finally for Williams the highest that I would go is $3.5 million a year so I would sign him to a three-year, $10.5 million deal with $5 million guaranteed to give him more assurances that he will be on The 53 for at least two of the three years.

Thanks for sticking around for the fourth installment my off-season advice for Thompson.  I know this post was by far the longest one of the off-season season but given how many players on The 53 last season that are set to become unrestricted free agents in just a couple days, clearly Thompson has some tough decisions ahead of him.  I am sure that I will revisit this post after the first few weeks of free agency plays out to see if Thompson followed any of my advice.  Make sure to check back tomorrow for my free agent buyers guide for Thompson that highlights guys that were not on The 53 for the Packers last year that Thompson should at least consider signing to The 53.

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